Animation Consultants International
At Burbank-based July Films, director Mike Nguyen in making My Little World, an independent feature which may provide a practical model for other Hollywood animators wanting to make their own movies. It could also help extend the viability of traditional cel animation in the theatrical realm.
It is perhaps unfair to judge how Mike Nguyen's My Little World, a work-in-progress, will eventually turn out; but with some 90% of rough animation done, this modest film exudes considerable charm and artistry. It's importance, though, goes beyond its cinematic virtues, and could represent a major stepping stone in the establishment of a viable independent feature animation sector in the United States.
Over the years, independent feature production in the U.S. has been sporadic, with much of it done for TV. Of particular interest are such films as John and Faith Hubley's Of Stars and Men (1964), Fred Wolf's The Point (1971), R. O. Blechman's The Soldier's Tale (1983), John Matthews' The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1986), and Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory (1995). More recently Bill Plympton has become dominant with such films as Mutant Aliens (2001), with Richard Linklater coming into the fray with Waking Life (2001). Though the quality of these films are considerably above the Hollywood average, unlike independent live action movies, they have not yet made much impact on the industry.
Two years ago, Nguyen put aside a career as a successful animator to make My Little World. Unlike others in Hollywood with similar dreams, he did not wait for backing from a major studio, but used a production model common to independent live-action filmmakers, which has allowed him considerable creative freedom.
The story, set somewhere in Asia, tells of a young boy named Blue who is sent to the country to spend the summer with an aunt to overcome a certain sadness. There, he makes friends and becomes the star of a soccer team, before returning home with a new attitude towards life. By itself, the narrative is unexceptional, but Nguyen imbues it with considerable energy and provides some wonderful dance-like sequences that belies the film's minimal budget. The results Nguyen has achieved, though, owes as much to the way he has managed the production as it does to his artistic vision.
As an animator, Nguyen liked to take assignments others shunned, feeling they offered more freedom and opportunity to learn. Thus, on Quest for Camelot, he took on the task of animating Aiden, the falcon. 'It is a small part,' he says, 'but it allowed me to design the character and have input on how it would move, as well as experiment with the animation.' And on the basis of his work on Aiden, Brad Bird hired him as a lead animator on Iron Giant, where he was responsible a number of scenes in the first half of the film, including the one where Dean first meets the giant.
A Different Production Model
As a result, the crew on My Little World has remained small. He began with a staff of 4, which later expanded to 12-14, and is now down to 9. His staff, which includes ex-students of his from CalArts, are working on deferred compensation; this is common enough in low-budget, live-action filmmaking, but unheard of in animation since Don Bluth's early days.
To date, about $2 million, including sweat equity, has been invested in the film, and Nguyen is trying to raise another $4 or $5 million to finish it. The initial seed money came from Korean animation executive An Hee Choi, the mother of a friend.
Like a number of other animators turned producer, Nguyen has attempted to deal with the way the production process can dampen creativity and tries to allow each animator considerable latitude. This includes allowing them to do their own rough inbetweens, 'if they feel like it.' He also doesn't 'require animators to draw exactly on model. So, as long as it is in the right proportion, they can be a little bit off in terms of detail, which I can take care of in cleanup.' This approach, he notes, is 'something Disney did in the early days.'
'Nowadays,' he points out, 'an animator is supposed to tie down their scenes so all the drawings end up being very clean looking, with clean-up artists not having to do much.' But, as he points out, each animator actually animates somewhat differently. 'So,' he feels, 'the whole thing really does not look seamless. Whereas in the early Disney films, it looks all the same.'
Except when absolutely necessary, he has stuck with his plan to do all the rough character animation first and add backgrounds and special effects later, which puts the emphasis on acting. 'The good thing about this approach,' he says, 'is we can make the background support the performances and not get overwhelmed by the details of the setting.'
Disney, Miyazaki and Tytla
Mike Nguyen's feeling for tradition also contributed to his decision to make My Little World using cel animation. 'To me, there's something magical about this medium, which is capable of expressing so much emotion. I think what Walt Disney did just scratched the surface for what this medium can do.'
'Disney started out with nothing and invented all these techniques to express something; but once that body of techniques was established, we began to rely on those techniques without going any further and the quest for experiment somehow stopped. I feel a need to explore new ways of saying things. That's why perhaps the films of Miyazaki make me feel so alive.' And perhaps that is the best way to judge My Little World when, hopefully, it is finished sometime next year.
-- Harvey Deneroff
Blue, the hero of My Little World, carries a deep sadness, and soccer is his one release. He overcomes his sadness while spending the summer with his aunt in the country, where he joins the Town Kids' soccer team, where he develops some close friendships. Nguyen says, Friendship is the main theme of the film. It's also about remembering all those wonderful times when I was young. What was it that is so beautiful then, when at the time I wasn't able to recognize it. When I didn't have the wisdom to see the privilege of having those carefree days, with no responsibilities.